Summary: A historical novel set at the beginning of World War Two exploring the growing realization of the horror of war that “heroic warriors” face. The plot centers around Jim Bennison, an English soldier and Miriam Lozelle, a Jewish refuge farm holder in Boissy whose husband is away at war.
Edith Pargeter’s* title is an allusion to traditional folklore of Seven Champions of Christendom–Saints George, Andrew, Patrick, Denis, James Boanerges, Anthony the Lesser, and David. All were heroic warriors and popularized in the 1596 Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom by Richard Johnson.
Pargeter’s historical novel is set in the early days of England’s involvement in World War II. Jim Bennison comes from the quiet village of Morwen Hoe. His greatest dream before war was to marry Delia, who tended bar at a local pub. When called up he and the other young men evidence a mix of bravado and a workmanlike, “let’s get this done.” Little do they know, like young warriors in most wars, what they will face when the blitzkrieg flattens Belgium to the English left, and destroys the French will to fight on their right.
But before all this, Jim and his men are quartered on a farm in the Artois region and the town of Boissy. The woman who runs the farm while her husband fights for France is a Jewish Czech emigre, Miriam Lozelle. A bond is formed when Jim rescues her dog when she strays onto the firing range. Jim wants to come to grips with the enemy. Miriam, who has already faced the Germans in Czechoslovakia, sees further into ugly nature of war. At one point she says to the village priest:
“They believe they know the worst man can do to them, and are armed against it. They know nothing, nothing at all. And we let them go out to be dirtied, and broken, and stripped, and flayed” (p. 84).
This is indeed what happens to Jim as his unit first resists the German onslaught, seeing them butcher civilians. They then head south, ending up near Artois. Only Jim and his close friend Tommy survive, and end up taking shelter at Miriam Lozelle’s bombed out farmhouse while recovering from wounds and illness. Miriam and the French underground, at great risk to themselves as a sinister Gestapo agent stalks Miriam, succeed in helping them escape. Once again, we are drawn to consider, through Jim’s eyes, this heroic woman:
“Until then he had felt no fear, only a sort of excitement that gripped him by the pit of the stomach when he tried to think ahead; but suddenly his mind made strange contact with Miriam’s mind, and he was afraid. It was all the stranger because she was not afraid, unless perhaps for them; for herself she had finished with hoping and fearing. She lived as she must, acting according to her nature, with nothing to lose but a life, and nothing to gain but the satisfying of her heart” (p.212).
The remainder of the book chronicles the escape. Does Jim make it? What happens to Miriam? And what does he find if he makes it home? To write of this would spoil the ending.
What was interesting for me to reflect upon was who was the “eighth champion”? On the face of it, it seemed to be Jim, and yet the more one considers, it seems plausible that the champion was actually Miriam, a heroic warrior in her own way, striving to save “Christendom” even as a Jewish emigre.
The story is hardly unique–the awakening awareness of the horror of war, harrowing escapes, heroic efforts. love and loss. What set this apart is the quiet eloquence of Edith Pargeter’s writing that draws us into the story. This is the first of a trilogy of novels written shortly after the war. I hope I can find the sequels.
*Edith Pargeter also wrote the series of Brother Cadfael stories under the name Ellis Peters.